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Oscars 2017: Sundance Launches Strong Contenders Like ‘Birth of a Nation,’ ‘Weiner’

It may seem nuts to start handicapping next year’s Oscars race before this year’s ceremony has even aired, but Sundance has proven that it’s now a launching pad for awards season contenders. After 2014’s debut of “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” and 2015’s premiere of “Brooklyn,” Sundance may have unveiled two more best picture nominees in 2016. Those would be “Manchester By the Sea” and “The Birth of a Nation.”

Let’s start with the second title. Nate Parker’s retelling of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner is a one-man tour-de-force: starring Parker, directed by Parker, produced by Parker and written by the actor best known until now as the star of “Beyond the Lights.” “The Birth of a Nation” will change that. Not only did the historical epic receive the most prolonged standing ovation at this year’s Sundance, it also landed the biggest deal in festival history, after it sold for $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, the same distributor that earned “12 Years A Slave” a best picture statue at the Oscars two years ago.

In addition to the top prize, Parker will be in the running for best director, best actor and best script nominations, and the Academy could single out two of his actors as nominees too — Aja Naomi King (for best supporting actress for her portrait of Turner’s wife Cherry) and Armie Hammer (for best supporting actor as a conflicted plantation owner). Unless Academy voters have lost their minds, “The Birth of a Nation” is a guarantee that Oscars 2017 won’t continue the embarrassing trend of only nominating white people in the acting categories. The picture swept the grand jury prize and the audience award for dramatic feature at the Sundance awards on Saturday night, the first of many awards the film is likely to receive.

Meanwhile, Kenny Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” was the inaugural feature at this year’s festival to spark a frenzied bidding war — the movie sold to Amazon for $10 million, and was instantly crowned as the streaming studio’s first serious shot at Academy Awards. (“Manchester” will debut theatrically before it moves over to Amazon’s online offerings.) It’s hard to imagine another screenplay this year surpassing Lonergan’s taut, gorgeously executed tragedy. Matt Damon, who is a producer on the film, called it one of the best scripts he had ever read, the rare Hollywood superlative that actually feels true.

In “Manchester,” Casey Affleck delivers a nuanced, layered performance as Lee, a lonely janitor who returns home after a family crisis. He deserves to be a contender in the best actor category, which would be his second Oscar nod after 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.“ Also look for potential supporting actor nods for 19-year-old newcomer Lucas Hedges, who auditioned five times for his breakout role as Lee’s nephew (and perfected a Gloucester accent), and Michelle Williams, whose heartbreaking, pivotal turn as Lee’s ex-wife should earn her a fourth trip to the Academy Awards.

There were other stellar performances at Sundance: among them Molly Shannon in the cancer dramedy “Other People”; Craig Robinson as the dad in “Morris From America”; Rebecca Hall in the journalism thriller “Christine”; Greg Kinnear in Ira Sachs’ real-estate drama “Little Men”; and Viggo Mortensen as the father of a large group of children in “Captain Fantastic.” But the smaller scale of these films makes them likelier bets for Independent Spirit Awards nominations than for Oscars.

What else impressed at Sundance? A couple of best song nominees could come from John Carney’s “Sing Street,” a musical rock valentine set in 1980s Ireland. Carney’s “Once” won this category in 2008 for “Falling Slowly,” and the soundtrack to “Sing Street” is just as catchy.

Sundance is also a strong home for documentaries; it’s where two of this year’s five doc nominees (“Cartel Land” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?”) first screened. This year, the buzziest docs that could land on the Oscars stage include two tearjerkers — Amazon Studio’s “Gleason,” about NFL player Steve Gleason who was diagnosed with ALS; and “Life, Animated,” which chronicles how a young boy with autism found understanding of life through Disney films. Finally, there could be comeback of sorts for disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner, the subject of IFC Film’s “Weiner,” which picked up the U.S. doc grand jury prize after receiving strong reviews.

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